To Seed or Not to Seed?

Pepper cotyledons vs leaves LAHGardeners seem to come in two varieties: those who buy seeds, and those who buy transplants. Which are you? Are you the do-it-yourselfer who prefers to start your plants from seed, nurturing each and every flower and vegetable from infancy? Or are you more the no-nonsense, practical type who figures that there’s no point in fussing when you can so easily purchase transplants? There are pros and cons to each approach.

Do we shell out $3.50 or more for a packet of seeds? Or do we buy the plants at the garden center? If we approach this from a purely economic perspective, it’s clear that seeds save money… or do they? Don’t forget, seeds are only one expense. There’s also the containers, which need to be filled with sterile potting soil. Artificial lights come in handy as well. It all adds up.

We can reuse the containers. I save the ones from the garden center—if I’m careful, they’re good for several years. Or we can make soil blocks (but we’ll need to buy the block maker) or paper pots (in which case we must buy the wooden pot form). But we can’t reuse the potting soil once the plant is growing in it. Light bulbs burn out. Shop light fixtures don’t last forever either.

Then we need to consider how many plants of each variety we need. Seed packets are no longer cheap. If your garden only has room for one or two plants (of, say, eggplant or tomatoes)—or if you want to try one plant each of several varieties—it might actually cost less to just buy seedlings.

Maybe it’s my science background, but I love to compare varieties. If I decide to grow 25 heads of lettuce, you can be sure I’ll plant at least five different types, and maybe more. Even well-stocked garden centers can’t compete with the wide assortment of available seeds. Whether you order from a catalog of browse the seed rack at the store, if you want choices, you’ll grow from seed.

Some crops must be started from seed. Carrots and parsnips cannot be transplanted—the roots will end up tied in knots! Poppies and other tap rooted plants also do best started in place where they are to grow. Beans, peas, squash, and corn have brittle roots that require careful handling; it’s much easier to just sow them in place too.

Starting seeds indoors takes space, both in our schedule and in our home. In our current house, I happen to have the perfect spot for a light stand, but that hasn’t always been the case. Window sills are often too hot, too cold, or too narrow. And if you work a lot of overtime or travel a lot, you might just opt for the simple solution and buy your plants.

Perhaps it really all boils down to one thing. Do we enjoy the satisfaction of raising our own transplants? It’s amazing how much effort we are willing to put into something that gives us a profound sense of accomplishment.

So what’s a gardener to do?
I like to grow my plants from seed, but sometimes it just isn’t practical. Pansies are biennials, and I don’t have a place for them to overwinter safely. Geraniums just take too long. I like to grow just one hot pepper plant (our needs are modest.) And last year I was out of town for most of April—when I should have been home tending my baby tomatoes and broccoli. So, I buy complicated or slow-to-grow plants, along with my one chili seedling, from the nursery. Last year I also purchased well-started tomato plants to put in my greenhouse in early May.

On the other hand, I’ve ordered my seeds for my main garden. The recycled 4- and 6-packs are washed and in their trays, my potting soil is on hand, and I have new bulbs in my shop lights. Is it spring yet?

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